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Diversity of teams to give Chase

The NASCAR field for the 10-race playoffs is set and it's not just the same two or three powerful outfits in the mix this time around.

September 14, 2009|Jim Peltz

The field for NASCAR's Chase for the Cup is set, and one striking aspect of his year's title contenders is the diversity of teams in the Chase.

Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing -- the teams that tend to dominate NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup Series -- are duly represented.

But so are several others that often are dismissed as second-tier competitors and that, in some cases, are in financial straits.

Kasey Kahne, for instance, made the Chase only two days after his struggling Richard Petty Motorsports team said it planned to merge with Yates Racing next year to remain a viable player in the sport.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who drives for the oft-struggling team of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, also qualified for his first Chase since the former open-wheel racing star moved to stock car racing in 2007.

So did Brian Vickers of Red Bull Racing, thanks to a seventh-place finish at Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond, Va., that lifted him to the 12th and final spot in the Chase by a mere eight points over Gibbs' Kyle Busch.

And perhaps the biggest surprise was that Stewart-Haas Racing, formed this season by two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, put both of its drivers in the Chase: Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman.

"I am extremely proud," Stewart said after the race at Richmond International Raceway, the final event of the Cup series' 26-race regular season. "We have a great group of people."

The top 12 drivers in points after Richmond qualified for the 10-race Chase that determines the series champion.

The Chase starts Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and its fourth race is the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Oct. 11. The playoff concludes Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

Chase drivers had their points reset to 5,000 after Richmond, and those with regular-season wins were given an additional 10 points for each victory.

So Mark Martin, the 50-year-old veteran who joined Hendrick this year in search of his first championship, opens the Chase with a leading 5,040 points because of his four wins.

Stewart and reigning champion Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick, who each have three wins, start the Chase in second with 5,030 points apiece.

Johnson, in fact, is going for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title, and for many the native of El Cajon, Calif., remains the favorite to win the Cup.

"I think we have got a good chance," Johnson said. "A lot can happen in a 10-race stretch and we will just have to see what we can do."

But he cautioned that "you just never know what is going to happen with mechanical failures and all those kind of things. So we just need to give 100% every week and see where we wind up."

A third Hendrick driver, Jeff Gordon, is trying to win his fifth championship, something only two other drivers have done: Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, who each had seven.

"I am excited," said Gordon, who won one race in the regular season and will start with 5,010 points. "We are going to give these guys a lot to think about over these next 10 races."

The Roush Fenway team, which unexpectedly struggled at times this season, put two drivers in the Chase: Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. Neither has won this year and Edwards has a broken right foot.

Denny Hamlin, who won the Richmond race, will represent Gibbs. But Kyle Busch -- who is tied with Martin with a series-high four wins this year -- will have to be satisfied with trying to gain more victories after missing the Chase.

For Montoya, who won the Indianapolis 500 and several Formula One races before joining NASCAR, making the Chase put to rest doubts about his ability to competitively drive stock cars.

Montoya also drove all season with an eye toward finishing as high as possible in each race, and gaining the most points, to ensure a Chase berth rather than being too aggressive.

"Just proving everybody wrong felt really good," he said. "It was a three-year plan to come here and start performing after three years and we made the Chase. This is bigger than winning a race or anything."

Team co-owner Chip Ganassi agreed.

"There have been a lot of questions over the years about our organization and I think a lot of it has been unfounded, so I think this kind of validates the way we operate," he said.

"The first race was to get in" to the Chase. "Now the racing begins."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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